WASHINGTON - The Bush administration underscored its continued support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai yesterday despite fresh allegations from a former US anti-drug official that Karzai is playing both sides of the effort to combat a raging drug business.
Thomas Schweich, who until June was one of the State Department's senior counter-narcotics officials, accused Karzai of protecting drug lords for political reasons. Schweich wrote in an article to be published Sunday in The New York Times magazine that "narco-corruption went to the top of the Afghan government."
Schweich said the Taliban-led insurgency fighting Karzai's government profits from drugs, but Karzai is reluctant to move against big drug lords in his political power base in the country's south, where most opium and heroin is produced.
"Karzai was playing us like a fiddle," Schweich wrote. The article appeared on the Times' website late Wednesday.
"The US would spend billions of dollars on infrastructure development; the US and its allies would fight the Taliban; Karzai's friends could get richer off the drug trade," he wrote.
State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos did not directly address Schweich's allegations but defended US policy and backing for Karzai.
"We know and understand that there is a corruption issue in Afghanistan but we're working with the sovereign government," Gallegos said yesterday. "President Karzai has shown us through word and deed that he is working with us to help improve the plight of that country."
Corruption is a deeply rooted problem, and addressing it, along with the country's massive development need, will not be quick, Gallegos said. "This is a long-term commitment in terms of time and this is a large commitment in terms of dollars."
Afghan officials were not immediately available to respond to Schweich's allegations.
Meanwhile yesterday, insurgents attacked an Afghan military convoy in southern Afghanistan and dozens of militants were killed after the army called for assistance from the US-led coalition and Afghan police, a police official said.
Deputy provincial police chief Jailani Khan said that the three forces surrounded the insurgents, killing 35, at least two of whom were Arabs. Five Taliban militants were arrested, he said.
"There was no report of any casualties among the coalition and Afghan forces," Khan said.
Drug production in Afghanistan has skyrocketed since the US-led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime. In 2007, Afghanistan produced 93 percent of the world's supply of opium, the raw material of heroin. Karzai has repeatedly promised his US backers that he is committed to rooting out endemic corruption and fighting the drug trade.